John Coplans

Self-Portrait (Back with Arms Above)


Not on display

John Coplans 1920–2003
Photograph, black and white, on paper
Image: 1213 × 935 mm
frame: 1290 × 1002 × 39 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Marsha Plotnitsky 2000


This is a black and white photograph of the artist’s back and hands with a surreal appearance. Cropped just below the top of the hips, Coplans’s back extends upwards in a solid rectangle, above which protrude two unexpectedly small, clenched fists. Curling himself round over his chest and belly, the artist hunched his shoulders inwards and bent his head down forwards so that it disappears. His shoulder blades form the gently contoured upper limit of the block. His wrists and hands emerge from this. The incongruity of the large back and small fists is accentuated by the shallow focal depth: the surface of the back is not quite in focus and has a soft appearance, while the knuckles of the hands are more sharply defined. The body is dramatically lit, resulting in strong contrasts between light and dark. Black shadows on the underside of the fists and the wrists add to their alien appearance. Extending out of the top of the back, they recall the antennae of an insect or snail. The centre of the back, the area of maximum curvature, is hairless and appears smooth and light reflective. Around it, curling black and white hairs soften the edges of the body, which is thrown into relief against the white background. Viewed from a distance, it has a sculptural, monolithic appearance. Up close, the silver gelatin print has the graphic quality of a charcoal drawing.

Born in London, Coplans initially trained as a painter and moved to the United States in 1960, the year after seeing an inspirational exhibition of Abstract Expressionist painting, The New American Painting, at the Tate Gallery. He stopped making paintings in the early 1960s, working as a teacher, curator, writer and editor and was intimately involved with the art magazine Artforum until the end of the 1970s. In 1979 he took up photography. He explained: ‘I decided to become a photographer because I wanted to go back to being an artist. I had had enough of art history, critics, museology ... I chose photography because I could not go back to painting ... photography ... is a medium to build an identity out of a composite personality, to find an artistic identity.’ (Quoted in John Coplans: Self Portrait: Hand/Foot, p.46.) Since 1984, his subject has been his own body. Central to Abstract Expressionism was a concern to express unconscious elements deep within the psyche. For Coplans, this relates to a kind of universal primitivism, which he has referred to as ‘being in touch genetically with the inheritance of mankind as an inner thing, something that we all have within. The genetic code has a memory embedded in it, a memory of our past ancestry ... when I began those photographs; I was very interested in this idea of genetic memory.’ (Quoted in Morris, p.75.) He began to think about the body as being able to express a language originating in a collective unconscious, something universal, primordial and direct.

Coplans uses a video camera and monitor to view parts of his body. Once he has selected an area, an assistant takes a photograph using positive/negative Polaroid film. This film creates instant images at the same time as a negative which may be used for later printing in large scale. Coplans deliberately avoids any kind of pose or gesture which may communicate a familiar message. By photographing sections of his own body, but always excluding his face, he divests it of a sense of wholeness. While the fragmentation of a male body may recall such Classical sculptures as the Belvedere Torso (1st century BC, Vatican Museums, Rome) and, more recently, Surrealist photographs such as The Big Toe 1929 by Jacques-André Boiffard (1902-61), the presentation of a naked patriarchal body is traditionally taboo in Western culture. Coplans has commented that: ‘these photographs refer to “body politics” in the sense that “oldness” is a taboo in American society, which tends to worship beauty and youth, consequently the aging of old bodies must be hidden from view, for they are imperfect, very often diseased and [will] soon perish.’ (Quoted in Morris, p.76.) Presenting an ageing male body as textured surface or surreal object rather than the locus of a thinking subject depersonalised rather than defined by his identity, Coplans subverts traditional self-portraiture and historical representation of the body in photography.

Self Portrait (back with Arms Above) was produced in an edition of three, of which this is an additional artist’s proof.

Further reading:
A Body: John Coplans, New York 2001, reproduced p.38
John Coplans: Self Portrait: Hand/Foot, exhibition catalogue, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1990
Stuart Morgan, Frances Morris, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, Tate Gallery, London 1995, pp.74-87

Elizabeth Manchester
May 2003

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Display caption

Coplans was one of the most influential art critics in America in the 1960s and 1970s, championing Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd. In 1971 he was appointed editor of the influential magazine, Artforum and in 1978 he became director of the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.

In the mid 1960s Coplans began taking photographs of his own ageing naked body. The photographs focus on isolated body parts showing them enlarged and close-up, so that they seem at once familiar and unfamiliar. Coplans' monumental images recall classical sculpture, whilst emphasising the relentless progression of the ageing process.

Gallery label, August 2004

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